Northeast Asia on the Brink

TOKYO – China’s refusal to attend this year’s summit with Japan and South Korea as scheduled comes at a trying moment for all three countries. Although Asia is the world’s most dynamic region, it has a paucity of institutional mechanisms for resolving – or at least mitigating – international disputes of the type that are ratcheting up tension across the region. Because the now-annual trilateral summits offer real hope for creating an institutionalized dialogue among Northeast Asia’s “Big Three,” China’s unwillingness to participate this year does not bode well.

Of course, international summits are usually an occasion for countries to sign agreements, not for the hard bargaining that can begin to improve their relations with one another. But with China, Japan, and South Korea due to meet at a time of growing tension among all three countries, the three leaders could have seized the moment to enhance strategic stability across Northeast Asia. Instead, tensions are now likely to continue to fester.

The first step in putting relations on a more stable footing is for each leader to acknowledge –and emphasize for their citizens – the ever-increasing interdependence of the three economies. Trade, investment, and production chains now link China, Japan, and South Korea in ways that no one could have imagined 20 years ago. As European history since 1945 has demonstrated, shared economic interests can provide a solid foundation for building both regional security, and ushering in historic reconciliations.

Moreover, the region’s greatest threat – North Korea’s nuclear arsenal – endangers all three countries. While the threat may not affect them equally, none can afford a misstep. So even security interests can serve to foster greater cooperation, if the countries’ leaders discuss and develop a common approach.